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NRC Preview: US peloton deep in talent

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Today's scene on Lemon Hill

Today's scene on Lemon Hill
(Image credit: Jonathan Devich/CN)
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Travis McCabe (SmartStop) is cheered by a fan with one lap to g

Travis McCabe (SmartStop) is cheered by a fan with one lap to g
(Image credit: Jonathan Devich)
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Lauren Stephens (TIBCO) staying out of trouble at the front.

Lauren Stephens (TIBCO) staying out of trouble at the front.
(Image credit: Jonathan Devich)
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The Men are on their way.

The Men are on their way.
(Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)
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Shelley Olds wins her second stage of the Joe Martin Stage Race in Sunday's criterium.

Shelley Olds wins her second stage of the Joe Martin Stage Race in Sunday's criterium.
(Image credit: Wil Matthews)
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Lawson Craddock (Bontrager-Livestrong) conquers the Gila Monster stage.

Lawson Craddock (Bontrager-Livestrong) conquers the Gila Monster stage.
(Image credit: Jonathan Devich)
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Claudia Hausler (TIBCO) and teammate Joanne Kiesanowski on the way to winning the final stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix.

Claudia Hausler (TIBCO) and teammate Joanne Kiesanowski on the way to winning the final stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix.
(Image credit: Jonathan Devich)
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Meredith Uhl (Farm Team Elite Women's Cycling) focuses on her start on this inaugural inclusion of Women in the Thompson Bucks County Classic

Meredith Uhl (Farm Team Elite Women's Cycling) focuses on her start on this inaugural inclusion of Women in the Thompson Bucks County Classic
(Image credit: marcoquezada.com)

US domestic racing rolls out of hybernation this week with the Redlands Bicycle Classic and the start of USA Cycling's 2015 National Racing Calendar. The men's and women's NRC individual and team classifications will be decided over seven events throughout the season, beginning with the five-stage California race that starts on Wednesday.

The biggest change for the NRC this year is the loss of the Cascade Cycling Classic after the Oregon stage race's organizers chose to forgo NRC status for 2015. Cascade's absence from the national calendar means the women's series will conclude at the North Star Grand Prix in June, while the men's series once again ends in September at the Reading 120, the re-branded name for the UCI race formerly known as the Thompson Bucks County Classic. Along the way, the series will visit the familiar stops in Arkansas, New Mexico, California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

With the UCI Road World Championships taking place in Richmond, Virginia in September – the first time in nearly 30 years that the elite rainbow jerseys will be decided in the US – the domestic racing scene is flush with UCI-registered teams hoping to benefit. Eleven men's Continental teams are registered in the US this year, while six US women's teams are racing at the UCI level.

Stephens returns with Tibco to defend 2014 title

Although Specialized-Lululemon became Velocio-SRAM and registered in Germany this year, several other teams stepped up to the UCI level to increase the ranks. New US UCI teams BMW-Happy Tooth, Pepper Palace-Happy Tooth and Twenty16-Sho Air join Tibco-SVB, Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies and UnitedHealthcare at the women's professional level.

Tibco's Lauren Stephens, the 2014 NRC individual rankings winner, will return with her team to defend the title this year. Last season's runner-up Mara Abbott's offseason move from UnitedHealthcare to Wiggle Honda means the talented climber will race mostly in Europe this year, opening up at least one podium spot for a new rider.

Carmen Small, third overall in 2014, moved from Specialized-Lululemon to Twenty16 this year and might find more opportunities at NRC races. Small's new team also picked up sprinter Lauren Hall in the offseason in what turned out to be a defacto trade with Optum, which got Alison Tetrick in return. UnitedHealthcare lost 2014 time trial and road race national champion Alison Powers to retirement, but the team brought in a new crop of riders to help fill the void.

Behind the women's pro teams is a group of quickly bridging domestic elite teams that will likely keep the pressure on the pros and grab some results this year. Former time trial world champion Amber Neben continues her comeback from injury on the VisitDallas-Noise4Good team that also includes Olivia Dillon. DNA Cycling-K4 and Fearless Femme-Haut Wheels are two more teams, among others, to watch for.

Lauren Stephens (Tibco-SVB) takes a corner on her way to the top of the 2014 NRC women's individual standings. (Jonathan Devich/epicimages.us)

Men's teams rich with WorldTour talent

Mergers and hard times at the WorldTour level have returned a few well-known and talented names to the men's domestic peloton, most notably 2013 Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner with the second-year UCI team Airgas-Safeway. Before Horner made a name for himself in Europe, he dominated US racing and topped the NRC individual rankings four times, including three consecutive years from 2002-2004.

Horner's deal with Airgas-Safeway and his return to domestic racing earlier this year were a bit of a surprise, but the 43-year-old told Cyclingnews in February that he's all-in for the domestic scene.

“The NRC is big,” Horner said. “I've won it four times in my career. I won it in '96, then I came back and won it multiple times in the early 2000s. It really sets the precedent of which rider in the US is the best domestically or whatever you want to call it. So that's a big objective.”

The NRC has changed quite a bit since Horner won it last. The biggest change occurred recently when criteriums were removed from the NRC and put on a separate calendar.

“When I won it back in the day it was from February to October, and all the events in that calendar were part of the NRC,” Horner said. “Now it's more specific and streamlined. So it's not as difficult to focus. I don't have to be good for the whole season.”

Horner and Airgas-Safeway will be on the start line Wednesday to begin their leader's quest for another Redlands win and another NRC title. After that, the team will travel North for the Sea Otter Classic, then hit NRC events at the Joe Martin Stage Race, and Tour of the Gila before heading across the Atlantic for the Tour d'Azerbaijan in May.

Horner is not going to have a leisurely stroll through the US calendar, however. Last year's individual winner Travis McCabe and Team SmartStop will have something to say about that. The team is back with a solid core of riders and some newcomers, including former Astana rider Evan Huffman.

Optum, which won the team prize last year, lost Chad Haga to Giant-Alpecin in the offseason, but the team benefited from the merger between Garmin and Cannondale when it picked up Phil Gaimon from the American squad and Guillaume Boivin from the Italian outfit.

Optum also added Michael Woods, a talented Canadian climber who recently came to cycling from a middle-distance running career. Woods has already won a race in Portugal this year, and he was fifth on the Queen stage of Volta ao Algarve behind Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte (Team Sky), world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), Movistar's Ion Izagirre and E3 Harelbeke winner Geraint Thomas (Team Sky).

Jelly Belly-Maxxis got stronger and younger this year with the additions of Morton brothers Lachlan and Angus, the former coming off two fitful but promising years with Garmin. Jamis-Hagens Berman will once again field a solid team of Latin Americans and US riders, adding former WorldTour sprinter Sebastian Haedo this year.

Hincapie Racing will look to improve on its breakout year in 2014, when the team started things off with Joey Rosskopf's last-day overall win at Redlands. Rosskopf eventually signed with BMC in the offseason. Robin Carpenter and Ty Magner return to lead a core group of riders who have been together now for several years.

Axeon Cycling, Axel Merckx's development team that raced in previous seasons as Trek, Bontrager and Bissell, will focus more on European races this year and the big UCI 2.HC races in the US, likely playing a smaller role in the overall NRC than it has in past seasons.

*UCI Races